It’s been a good start to the new year here, with new experiences and challenges continuing to come! Chief among them was last week’s visit to the firefighter training facility in Moriyama, where I participated in drills aimed at helping firefighters to be able to rescue and support foreign people during emergencies.
There were 15 firefighters (actually all firemen, but for the purposes of equality let’s stick with non-gender specific terminology!) who attended the training; 8 from the fire service which serves Yasu, Moriyama, Konan, Kusatsu and Ritto, and 7 from the adjacent Otsu fire service. The morning was separated into three components: 1) an opening forty-five-minute English lesson, where I taught the necessary language that could be used in an emergency situation. 2) practice within the same room, with pairs of firefighters assisting a foreign victim in a role-play scenario. 3) The emergency drill in the outside training area.
For the purposes of parts 2 and 3, it was decided that it would be better to have two foreign people to assist the practice and the final emergency drills. On that basis I invited my buddy Dan to come join, and thankfully he was able to make the time to come. The whole morning was something a bit new and a good life experience, so it was good to share it with a friend of mine.
I took the lead during the opening English class, which, thankfully, went quite well. I’m quite an experienced EFL teacher, but there is always the issue with adult classes as to what types of activities you choose for language practice; some ‘fun’ language games can go down badly, especially if the atmosphere of the classroom is too serious. During the meeting with the fire chief a couple weeks prior though, he mentioned that last year’s similar event, run by my predecessor, was found quite fun and that the learners probably didn’t want the atmosphere to be too serious. On that basis I decided to use some activities which I’ve previously used with elementary school students!
As a warm-up, I asked them to give me some English words/ phrases connected to fire and rescue. A few people were forthcoming with ideas, but the atmosphere didn’t relax as much as I had hoped. Anyway, we were in English mode somewhat after that warm-up, and I brought in a game of Jakarta to check their understanding of the phrases we were to study. I, and Dan, would speak aloud an English phrase, and the firefighters had to select the corresponding Japanese phrase from the cards spread out on their table. They engaged well and enjoyed this activity, and, most importantly, gained a greater connection with the language.
After this I had them repeat all the phrases after me (I had prepared a small document for use with the class, with the phrases on) to practice the pronunciation, then introduced a Q and A activity to practice real communication. The questions had evidently been pre-practiced by the majority of the firefighters, but they did have some issues with how to go about answering them, and, most importantly understanding the responses! My advice to unconfident speakers was to stick with the yes/no form questions, rather than open-ended WWWWWH questions, as responses would be much more easily understandable, even if the communication would be somewhat stilted! The activity involved a sheet with questions in a loop, and the firefighters would play rock, scissors, paper in pairs; the winner asking the question and then moving to the next space, in a race (of sorts) to the goal. A bit of a childish activity, but they were all very fine with it, and seemed to enjoy themselves as they practiced the language. For the last 15-20 minutes of the lesson, the students, in the same pairs, practiced in a role-play situation with each other, first looking at their sheet, before then trying again without any help. I finally picked out a particularly able pair to present their role-play to the other members of the class.
Here are the materials I used for the lesson.
This is the classroom.
Here's a little video of the firefighters practicing.
You’ll see that in that one single 45-minute lesson, I managed to incorporate a warm-up activity, listening activity, speaking practice, communication activity, role-play and presentation. I would usually do all that over the course of 4-5 lessons, but time-constraints as they were, I went with the same logical progression of study, and was fairly pleased with the outcome!
Following this, we separated into two groups, one led by Dan, and one by myself. In the classroom, the firefighters worked in teams to ‘rescue’ us from certain predicaments (generally ‘trapped under chair’ as there wasn’t much to work with prop-wise). There are apparently eight stages to rescuing someone, from finding them, to finally moving them out of the emergency site, and the firefighters did a really good job in covering all the sections using only English. As we had two ‘victims’ in me and Dan, we had plenty of time for this practice. Then, for the last thirty minutes or so, the main event, as we went outside to do the emergency drill.
The situation was supposed to be that there had been an earthquake, and the victims (Dan and myself) were injured and, crucially, unable to speak any Japanese. We had to go into the rubble and then, when prompted, try to hail the firefighters to our respective locations. The first time, they came quickly and managed to deal with my situation quite without an issue. It was a lot more realistic than the indoor practice, with them even putting me on a stretcher and taking me to a safe area. It probably went a bit too smoothly though, so for the second drill they asked me to speak much faster (I had been speaking in ‘easy’ English to make myself more understandable). I tried my best to use my regular English, and speak as though I was in a panic, and, this time, they really had difficulty picking up what I was saying. In fact, even the iPhone app they ended up trying to use couldn’t pick up the meaning of what I was saying (well done Westcountry accent!). Eventually, they got to the bottom of my situation though (broken leg, painful back and neck). This time I was in quite a tricky position physically though, so the only way to get me out was through a long tunnel. It was about the width of perhaps one and a half bodies, and probably ten metres in length. With a helmet and neck-brace attached to myself, the rescuers put me onto a blue sheet, attached itself by ropes. It suddenly dawned on me that they were going to pull me through the tunnel feet first. I feel like this kind of thing has come to me in a nightmare before, but I tried to just shut my eyes and think of something else, while the panic rose every so slightly inside of me. It probably only took around 30-40 seconds to get me through the tunnel, but it genuinely felt like a few minutes. I was certainly glad to see the sky when I got through the end!
Didn't get a picture of the training site as I was too busy, but the tunnel looked like one of these!
Overall, I can see the value of the exercises that we took part in that morning. At first, I thought there was too much emphasis on English, where they should be promoting the use of ‘easy Japanese’. Among the foreign population in Yasu, for example, I would say only about a quarter are strong English speakers, though the majority can speak at least some Japanese. However, the emergency drill really gave the firefighters a good experience of how to deal with a non-Japanese-speaking foreign person, and they will have gained quite a bit of insight in terms of whether translator apps will be functional (probably not), and the importance in keeping someone calm so that (among other things) their language is more understandable.
For me as well, it was a really good experience. I got to see how fire stations work, what kinds of drills the firefighters are practicing, and spend the morning with a good bunch of people. Already looking forward to next year’s event!